“Best” can be a bit of a tricky word, especially when it comes to ranking something creative like a television programme.
A ranked list suggests something quantifiable or easily measured, but “best” is often anything but - in this particular context though, it means something between greatest, most memorable, and often simply personal favourite.
So, to round out the year, here are the twenty-one best television shows of 2021.
The striking thing about the first Disney+ Marvel television series is how accidentally perfect it was at being just that. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was intended to be the MCU’s Disney+ debut, but production stalled because of the novel coronavirus – schedules were rearranged and WandaVision was brought forward.
Almost a year since the last Marvel movie was in cinemas, the franchise returned with a series about the Marvel Cinematic Universe eating sitcoms from the inside out: it’s a show about its own impact on popular culture, with decades of television history turning into the latest Avengers spinoff as the superhero genre demanded you pay attention to it again.
The series was best when it embraced the idiosyncrasies that made it distinct, especially given how much fun Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany seemed to be having, but it’s hard not to appreciate how thematically coherent this superhero series turned out to be.
Where can I watch WandaVision? WandaVision is available internationally on Disney+.
20. Mr. Mayor
Originally planned as a Jack Donaghy-focused 30 Rock spinoff, this Tina Fey & Robert Carlock series instead starred Ted Danson as a vaguely Mike Bloomberg-esque LA Mayor, elected almost by accident but determined to prove himself anyway.
There’s a sort of 30 Rock does Parks and Recreation quality to this workplace sitcom, as the heightened style of the former meets the basic structure of the latter. Admittedly rough in places, you can still see the potential for Mr Mayor to go on to become something great.
Where can I watch Mr. Mayor? You can watch Mr. Mayor on Sky/Now TV in the UK, and on Peacock in the US.
This Sky comedy about a group of paramedics was short but sweet – at only six twenty-minute episodes, you could watch it all in a single evening, and might well want to too.
Being on Sky, it seemed to fly under the radar a little bit: not a surprise but certainly a shame, and it’s well-worth checking this one out. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but equally it doesn’t have to either – it’s more than enough that this cast (Samson Kayo and Lucy Punch are particular highlights) are as funny as they are.
Where can I watch Bloods? You can watch Bloods on Sky/Now TV in the UK, and on Hulu in the US.
18. Ted Lasso (Series 2)
The second series of Ted Lasso didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first. Its plotting and character writing was just that little bit messier, just that little bit less consistent. Perhaps that’s because two additional episodes were commissioned by Apple relatively late in the production of the series; perhaps it would’ve helped had one of those extra episodes been a Keeley/Higgins focused episode, dealing with things like the oil protest fallout, rather than the Christmas special and a Scorsese tribute.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate about Ted Lasso Series 2. Jason Sudeikis in particular does some genuinely fantastic work, the folksy charm laid bare as it curdles and unspools into a collection of tics that make up a barely functioning coping mechanism. Hopefully, next year’s third – and likely final – series will recapture some of that early magic.
Where can I watch Ted Lasso? Ted Lasso is available internationally on Apple TV+.
17. The Good Fight (Season 5)
The fifth series of the legal drama, itself a sequel to seven seasons of The Good Wife, struggled somewhat to reinvent itself after the pandemic interrupted and curtailed its fourth series. Its opening episode, styled as an extended “Previously On” recap, was full of the charm and wit that characterised the show – but the show couldn’t quite shake that scattershot edge going forward, lacking some of the precision of earlier years.
What was impressive about The Good Fight’s fifth series though was how it turned inwards, becoming increasingly ambivalent about its main character Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski). That slightly ambiguous self-critique is a smart move for a series about a character that first appeared onscreen nearly twelve years ago, and it suggests encouraging things about the future of this absurdist legal procedural.
Where can I watch The Good Fight? You can watch The Good Fight on All4 in the UK, and on Paramount+ in the US.
What’s often frustrating about true crime drama is how consistently formulaic they are, making such adaptations seem as lazy as they are lurid. (There’s a string of ITV true crime dramas that feel like they were all made from the same script, each one falling prey to the same cliché-ridden conventions as the last.)
With that in mind, Landscapers was a breath of fresh air. Starring Olivia Colman and David Thewlis as Susan and Christopher Edwards, Landscapers tells the story of the Mansfield murders – but it does so with style and verve, rejecting the drab realism of most true crime for something altogether more inventive.
Written by Colman’s husband Ed Sinclair and directed by Flowers creator Will Sharpe, Landscapers is first and foremost a very sweetly observed love story, and despite everything, there’s something deeply affecting about this four-part drama. It makes for an impressive contrast to true crime both reverential (like The Serpent) and gimmicky (like The Investigation), and it’s well-worth watching if you’re desperate to see the genre find a new approach.
Where can I watch Landscapers? You can watch Landscapers on Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
15. Around the World in 80 Days
Around the World in 80 Days is an uncomplicated but confident adaptation of the original Jules Verne novel, one that answers the question “is it worth doing this again?” with a resounding “yes, if you do it this well.”
Where can I watch Around the World in 80 Days? You can watch Around the World in 80 Days on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on PBS Masterpiece in the US.
14. You Don’t Know Me
You Don’t Know Me offers what is very likely the best dramatic performance in a British television series all year. Samuel Adewunmi plays the lead, the defendant in a court case offering his own closing statement – he narrates, frames, and ultimately anchors the crime drama that unfolds over the next four episodes, accounting for difficult choices that became harder ones as any good options quickly evaporated.
It’s difficult to imagine the series – which absolutely flies by, its four hours over before you know it – working anywhere near as well as it does without Adewunmi at its centre. Certainly, the series is already well-written and well-directed, but Adewunmi is a huge part of why it’s as compelling as it is. You Don’t Know Me didn’t seem to receive much attention during its BBC One airing; hopefully, when it comes to Netflix in the US next year, it’ll make waves and garner Adewunmi the praise he deserves.
Where can I watch You Don’t Know Me? You Don’t Know Me is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and will be available on Netflix internationally next year.
13. Ghosts (Series 3)
There’s something consistently very charming about Ghosts, the haunted house sitcom from the Horrible Histories crew. In fact, it’s probably one of the most endearing – really just the most straightforwardly likeable – programmes on television, with its broad-appeal humour tied together by the easy chemistry of a group of collaborators who’ve worked together for years.
With a fourth series on the way, Ghosts is probably now nearer the end than the beginning – but wouldn’t it be fantastic if it wasn’t? Hopefully, even if the series itself does draw to a close, they’ll keep doing a Christmas special each year.
Where can I watch Ghosts? Ghosts is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
12. What We Do in the Shadows (Season 3)
The great thing about What We Do in the Shadows is the specific rhythms of its dialogue: the comic timing, the line delivery, the way a particular insult or exclamation is phrased. You get the sense that the show’s writers are really, really good at tailoring the dialogue to each of their actors: What We Do in the Shadows is consistently a great showcase for Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén and Mark Prosch both individually and as an ensemble.
Or, put another way, the way Matt Berry says “f***” as Laszlo Cravensworth is enough to earn What We Do in the Shadows a spot on this list. If you’ve seen the show, you can imagine that perfectly; if you haven’t, you should.
Where can I watch What We Do in the Shadows? What We Do in the Shadows is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on FX in the US.
11. Stath Lets Flats (Series 3)
One of the first things you notice about Stath Lets Flats creator and star Jamie Demetriou is how tall he is; the next is how good he is at physical comedy. It’s not subtle, exactly, but it is a constant feature in the background – lanky and gangling, watch how he folds in and out of cars or fumbles an energy drink. Stath Lets Flats is fantastic at finding new ways to showcase that talent: Stath’s fight with guest star Charlie Cooper (This Country) is one of the standout scenes of Series 3.
It seems likely that Series 3 will be Stath’s last, which is at once a shame – it’ll be sorely missed – and also entirely fine, given how well it wrapped everything up. If this were a list of the best individual episodes of television 2021, or most memorable scenes, Stath Lets Flat series 3 episode 5, A Literally Earlier Year, would make both lists: the long-anticipated declaration of love from Al (Al Roberts) to Sophie (Natasia Demetriou) is so heartfelt and sincere and just kind of perfect, really.
Where can I watch Stath Lets Flats? Stath Lets Flats is available to watch on All4 in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
Starstruck isn’t just a sitcom but a romcom, one that feels almost consciously like a throwback. It’s about a chance encounter between a normal person and someone unimaginably famous; over the course of six episodes, the pair are drawn to one another again and again, and a series of false starts and stumbling mistakes start to become something more.
Rose Matafeo (who created the series and co-wrote each episode) plays Jessie, a twenty-something caught between multiple jobs; Nikesh Patel is Tom Kapoor, a vaguely Tom Cruise-esque type who doesn’t particularly enjoy being one of the most recognisable movie stars in the world. Matafeo and Patel make for a deeply charismatic screen couple, and watching them together is a real joy; Starstruck is really committed not just to the relationship but to the romance, and you’ll quickly find yourself just as starstruck by it as Tom is by Jessie.
Where can I watch Starstruck? Starstruck is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
9. Evil (Season 2)
Evil is probably best explained by comparison to The X-Files, though this series takes on a religious/supernatural inflection rather than a sci-fi one. The series sees priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter), forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), and sceptic Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) investigate different potentially supernatural phenomena for the Catholic church.
What stands out about Evil, its second series now over and its third currently filming, is just how good a procedural it is. A lot of that comes from the cast – Colter, Herbers, and Mandvi all have great chemistry together – but it goes further than that. Evil is really good at twisting and pushing its premise further and further, each episode offering a new articulation of that central idea: some particular series 2 standouts include S is for Silence (an episode with very little spoken dialogue) and Z is for Zombies (a clever supernatural critique of Amazon). Fundamentally, Evil is a piece of television that’s very good at being a television procedural – it’s got a clear, well-defined sense of the strengths of the form, and how best to utilise them.
Where can I watch Evil? Evil is available on Alibi in the UK, and on Paramount+ in the US.
8. The Outlaws
The Outlaws is a comedy crime thriller written by Stephen Merchant, about a group of community service workers who find a big bag of money – they think their luck has changed, and in a way it has, just not really for the better. There’s a lot to like about this one: it’s as funny as you’d expect, but it also has a much better handle on its drama than you might think. It’s another show with a great ensemble as well; Stephen Merchant has mentioned he originally conceived of The Outlaws as a movie, but rewrote it as a television series to spend more time with the characters, and it’s a good thing he did too.
The best part of The Outlaws, though, is Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole. It’d be unfair to describe either as new actors, exactly, but The Outlaws is plainly a starmaking turn for them both: Barreto and Cole are two of the most exciting actors in any of the shows on this list, not just for what they do in The Outlaws (they’re the spine of the series, it’s built around them and on the strength of their performances) but for whatever it is they’re going to do next.
Where can I watch The Outlaws? The Outlaws is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and will be available on Amazon Prime internationally.
7. The Other Two (Season 2)
The Other Two follows Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke Dudek (Heléne Yorke), the struggling older siblings of a Justin Bieber like teen-pop sensation. Its first series was one of the funniest new shows of 2019, and the long-delayed second series is one of the funniest returning shows of 2021.
The thing about The Other Two in particular is that it’s one of the sharpest comedies on television. It’s a series that really has its finger on the pulse of pop culture and the internet, and that gives it this real sense of not just being funny but being immediate too – not just of the moment but for the moment, really acutely and perfectly pitched to now. (Or, put it another way, The Other Two is a show that could do a joke about a viral twitter trend that’s going to be genuinely funny rather than just faintly embarrassing.)
It’s all centred by some fantastic performances and a genuine investment in its character writing; plus, Season 2 also ends with perhaps the single best joke about 2020 anyone has written yet.
Where can I watch The Other Two? The Other Two is available on All4 in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
6. Superstore (Season 6)
Superstore Season 6 will probably be remembered for two things. The first is that it offered the rare good take on coronavirus on television: with no way to avoid acknowledging the pandemic, as many other shows have, Superstore instead tackled it head on.
The workplace sitcom set in a big box store managed to get a lot of humour out of it (if anything, actually, the pandemic re-energised Superstore, giving it a whole new set of subjects to joke about) but it was also much better at engaging with the intensity and uncertainty of the pandemic than most shows. Its very straightforward, uncomplicated take on things – never gimmicky, never histrionic – really works, and it’ll be worth revisiting for years to come.
It also had one of the best series finales of any sitcom in ages. It was funny and thoughtful and absolutely triumphant – despite ending earlier than planned, Superstore went out on a high note, a real sense of hitting the landing on a six-year journey. (Perfect though it was, of all the final seasons on this list, Superstore is the show that I’ll miss the most.)
Where can I watch Superstore? Superstore is available on Netflix in the UK, and on Peacock in the US.
5. For All Mankind (Season 2)
For All Mankind – an alternate history period piece, looking at how the Cold War might’ve continued if the USSR reached the moon first and the Space Race had never ended – is the best paced television show on this list. It’s a very measured, very exact piece of drama; it moves with confidence and a real command of itself.
That quality is a huge part of how For All Mankind builds and develops across its second series, maintain that steady sense of escalation across ten episodes. Its finale – The Grey – is one of the best episodes of television all year, in part for how it feels like the culmination of everything that came before it.
It’s full of really fantastic moments of payoff – the best being (though it’s hard to explain how and why) Michael Dorman’s very understated, almost offhanded remark that he’s “taken up running again”. If this were a list of the best line readings of the year, that’d be one of them.
Where can I watch For All Mankind? For All Mankind is available internationally on Apple TV+.
4. It’s A Sin
It’s A Sin is, in all likelihood, the best thing Russell T Davies has ever written. At once entirely unlike anything he’s done before but also completely of a piece with his other shows, it’s deft and forthright and absolutely incendiary. (It’s so much more than that, of course – picking just three adjectives to describe a show like this feels reductive, because it’s often as much a celebration and a tribute as it is a polemic.)
Davies’ writing is only part of the reason it works so well, though, as It’s A Sin was brought to life by some brilliant performances: Nathaniel Curtis (in a generous supporting role), Callum Scott Howells (the breakout star), Omari Douglas (brilliant in a deceptively complex part), Lydia West (destined for big things), and Olly Alexander (an absolute revelation) anchor the drama, absolutely the perfect cast for one of the most affecting dramas of the year.
Where can I watch It’s a Sin? It’s a Sin is available on All4 and Britbox in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
3. Succession (Season 3)
One of the things Succession is really good at is exploring new depths within its status quo. Take Roman, for instance, because this third series is Kieran Culkin’s series in the same way the first was Jeremy Strong’s or the second was Sarah Snook’s. Which is to say, it’s not that the show focused on Culkin at the expense of the rest of the cast this year – you only have to look at the career-best work Matthew Macfadyen has been doing week on week to see that it’s not – but rather that they’ve pushed that character further than before.
You can read more in our full review of Succession Series 3 here (though, be warned, there are a number of spoilers throughout).
Where can I watch Succession? Succession is available on Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK, and on HBO Max in the US.
2. Feel Good (Series 2)
There’s this bit in Feel Good series 2 where they play a Phoebe Bridgers track, Motion Sickness. It’s the most obvious and literal song choice in the moment, but also the best – one of those moments where the first idea really just is also best idea too. It takes this song that had maybe (definitely) lost some of its original meaning through its ubiquity, places it back into its original context, and then suddenly it’s like hearing it again for the first time.
It’s maybe an odd thing to pick up on when praising Feel Good – it’s a good needle drop but it’s not like anyone involved in this show wrote that song – but for the fact that it’s something of a testament to the emotional strength of the show. Mae Martin’s writing, alongside Charlotte Ritchie’s dramatic talents, has this almost sort of transformative effect.
Channel 4 cancelled Feel Good, but Netflix revived it for its second and final series. It’s a good thing they did: the first series was great, but the second was something really special.
Where can I watch Feel Good? Both series of Feel Good are available on Netflix.
1. We Are Lady Parts
This is the best show of the year – immediately, obviously, earning the top spot on this list back in May, with nothing coming close to unseating it since.
It’s about a Muslim punk rock girl band, and it’s anarchic and gleeful, one of the most straightforwardly fun to watch programmes of the year. Writer/director Nida Manzoor has a great handle on the comedy and the character writing, with the six episodes of We Are Lady Parts forming a really nice unit together. Plus, how good are Anjana Vasan and Sarah Kameela Impey? (So good.)
Manzoor also brings these really nice occasional touches of fantasy to it, with the show full of imaginative little asides throughout – We Are Lady Parts has a very distinctive feel to it, entirely unlike anything else on this list. There’s a real shock of the new to We Are Lady Parts, and it sits right at the heart of that “greatest”, “most memorable”, and “personal favourite” definition of best.
A second series has been commissioned – and the sooner it arrives, the better.
Where can I watch We Are Lady Parts? We Are Lady Parts is available on All4 in the UK, and on Peacock in the US.
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